March 22, 2012: The South African government is investigating a local firm that was planning to buy American Bell 212 helicopters from a Canadian company, change their documents and then ship them to Iran via Russian transport aircraft. Last year Spanish police broke up a similar scheme when they arrested five local businessmen and three Iranians. The eight were accused of trying to illegally export nine used Bell 212 helicopters to Iran.
The Bell 212 is a civilian version of the 1960s era U.S. Army UH-1 ("Huey"). The five ton 212 has two engines (the UH-1 had one) and normally carries twelve passengers and no weapons. But some have been armed. The nine Spanish Bell 212s were formerly owned by the Israeli Air Force but were sold to a Spanish firm in the 1990s, when they were replaced in Israeli service by UH-60s.
The eight Spanish smugglers had disassembled the nine 212s and were putting them in containers for shipment to Venezuela and Iran, labeled as aircraft parts. The cost of the sale was $140 million, including a quantity of spare parts (which are also illegal to send to Iran).
Many Western nations, in addition to the United States, have become more aggressive in going after Iranian technology and hardware smuggling. Australia recently stopped a shipment of pumps that, it turned out, were capable of being used in nuclear power plants (as well as for more benign uses). Iran has been quite blatant about buying dual use equipment and then openly using the stuff for military purposes. That bravado is backfiring.
Ever since the U.S. embargo was imposed in 1979 (after Iran broke diplomatic protocol by seizing the American embassy), Iran has sought, with some success, to offer big money to smugglers who can beat the embargo and get needed industrial and military equipment. This is a risky business, and American and European prisons are full of Iranians and other nationals, who tried and often failed to procure forbidden goods. The smuggling operations are currently under more scrutiny, and attack, because of Iran's growing nuclear weapons program. But the Iranians simply offer more money and more smugglers step up to keep the goodies coming.
The U.S. has gotten more aggressive and successful at shutting down Iranian smuggling operations. Not just by bribing the smugglers themselves but also by getting the cooperation of nations the smugglers operate out of. This has been so successful that most of these smugglers no longer feel safe working out of Arab Persian Gulf nations (especially the United Arab Emirates). As a result, more smugglers are operating out of Malaysia, and the U.S. is trying to shut down that activity. America also monitors the international banking network, seeking signs of smuggler activity and leaning on the banks involved to step back.
The smuggling effort has been a mixed success. The Iranian armed forces are poorly equipped because new tanks, warplanes, and ships could not be sneaked in. Thus major weapons acquired in the 1970s are falling apart for want of sufficient replacement parts.